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Tips and tricks to stay safe from ticks

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Health Protection, Protecting the country's health

I’m walking through an English woodland. The bluebells are beginning to flower and the cuckoos are calling. It really is a great time to be outdoors. Many of the overwintering insects are stirring and the air is filled with the buzz of queen bumblebees and the song of migrant birds. The English countryside is at its best.

However, as a medical entomologist working for Public Health England I am mindful of the fact that not all wildlife is quite so appealing. Spring and summer is peak time for ticks, and at this time of year much of my time is taken up studying them: their ecology, abundance and the diseases they transmit.

Ticks are becoming much more common now across large parts of England, particularly in woodlands, along woodland edges, on heathland and moorland and in some grassland sites. Their numbers are increasing largely due to the increase in deer numbers. Reports from the public about ticks in gardens are also increasing. With deer moving into urban areas and now becoming a more common feature in gardens, they are bringing ticks with them. This is surprising for many, particularly where they have only recently become a problem.

So, what are these ticks and what can we do to stop getting bitten by them? More to the point, why are ticks a health concern?

Ticks are blood-sucking members of the spider family. We have about 20 species in the UK and most of them feed on specific wild animals like bats, woodland birds, badgers and foxes. Several are only recorded from seabirds on offshore islands. In contrast though, the sheep or deer tick Ixodes ricinus feeds on practically all animals, including mammals, birds, reptiles, humans and pets (particularly dogs). This tick can be active all year, but numbers start to increase from late March, peaking in late spring and summer and will remain active until October.

The woodland that I’m walking through is perfect habitat for ticks. As well as providing a habitat for the animals they feed on, it also provides a moist microclimate for their survival. Ticks spend the majority of their three-year life in the leaf litter, trying to avoid drying out. Periodically, when the conditions are right, they climb up the vegetation and ‘quest’ for animals. They can sense the carbon dioxide we breathe out, the vibrations we make as we walk and our heat. Without eyes they don’t see us. If I reach down now and inspect the grasses and flowers of this woodland track I can actually see questing ticks. They are waving their front legs around, and if I get too close and brush the vegetation they will actually climb on.

They’re after my blood and they’ve probably been waiting quite a while. They will walk up my skin until they find an area like the back of my knees, my armpits, my waist or groin and begin to feed. It’s not pleasant but you don’t actually feel it. As a father of young children with a lust for the outdoors, I’m always mindful of ticks on them, particularly around the hairline.

As I walk through this woodland I’m making sure that I keep to the middle of path and trying to avoid overhanging vegetation. Ticks don’t jump or fly. If I do brush vegetation I’m making sure that I check my legs regularly to brush the ticks off. I’m wearing pale trousers so that I can see them better, and my trousers are tucked in my socks. Wellies are also a good defence.

The reason why I work on ticks and am keen to tell you about them is that they can transmit bacteria during feeding that causes Lyme borreliosis, or Lyme disease. The infection can be serious if not treated. Symptoms of Lyme disease can include a slowly expanding circular reddish rash, flu-like feeling, fatigue, muscle and joint pain. Most cases are cleared up with a course of antibiotics but without treatment, more serious conditions such as meningitis, facial palsy, nerve damage and arthritis can develop, so prevention and early detection are crucial. The best defences against Lyme are preventing tick bites, recognising the signs of infection and receiving prompt treatment, so in addition to my regular tick checks as I walk through this woodland I will check again when I get home to make sure I have removed any feeding ticks. Ticks are very small, so are not easy to see, although after a while you get your eye in. The nymph is the size of a freckle, and the larvae are even smaller and often go unnoticed.

When I speak to people in the countryside during field work I hear lots of theories about removing ticks, like covering them in Vaseline or nail varnish or burning them off. None of these are recommended as they can aggravate the tick and lead to secondary infection. I use a pair of fine tipped tweezers or a tick removal tool. The mouthparts of the tick are barbed and can be hard to remove, so a bit of force is required.

I’m leaving the woodland now, and I have been pretty diligent to remove any ticks from my trousers. My walk back to the road is along the edge of woodland and over some grassy fields. I’m still in tick habitat, so will check again before I get home. I always check at the end of a day in the countryside, and if I do find any ticks feeding I remove the tick promptly, clean the bite site with an antiseptic wipe and watch for any symptoms of Lyme disease, remembering to consult my GP if I feel unwell.

My group run a tick recording scheme and we are trying to map ticks across England to ensure that we can understand why and where they are increasing in numbers and to make sure we are alerting the public and GPs about tick awareness and tick-bite prevention. If you find a tick you can send it in to us for identification. We are also working in a range of habitats to understand what determines tick hotspots, how we can manage tick populations and what determines the prevalence of Lyme bacteria in the ticks. It’s worth remembering though that you don’t have to be in a bluebell wood to get ticks: urban parks and dog walking routes are also important habitats. Enjoy the countryside this spring, but try to remember to be tick aware.

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  1. Comment by felciity owen posted on

    excellent article on ticks, haven't read anything more helpful. thank you

  2. Comment by Niamh Eadie posted on

    Hi there, my daughter was bitten by a tick last Spring in our garden. We live in an area of woodland with many deer roaming into the garden and large areas of bluebells on the outskirts of Plymouth. Thankfully, we pulled it out and she suffered no problems. Great article, thank you.

  3. Comment by Wendy anderson posted on

    The last comment worries me. Her daughter should have been treated with 28 days of doxy.
    It was two years after my bite that I actually started to feel really ill.
    I even gave blood as my GP told me my symptoms could not be due to Lyme as it doesn't exist in the uk.
    She was very wrong. I had a private test which was positive and nhs negative. So have not recieved any nhs treatment .
    I has cost me close to £ 500,00 in loss of earnings and paying for private treatment out of desperation.
    Things have to change. Many of us are left to rot.

    • Replies to Wendy anderson>

      Comment by Helen J Harvey posted on

      It sickens and saddens me to read your comment, Wendy.
      Yesterday I was bitten by a tick for the second time in a year. The first time around, I saw a Doctor straight away. This Doctor diligently prescribed a dose of Doxycycline. However, yesterday was not so straight forward. My GP Surgery didn't want to know & I was advised to either attend A&E or a Vet for removal. I chose the first option but when I asked for antibiotics the Nurse informed me that NICE Guidelines do not advise antibiotics unless displaying symptoms of Lyme. I'm a great believer of "prevention is better than cure". I then rang my Doctors Surgery once more & had a Doctor ring me whereby a long winded conversation took place with lots of NICE Guidelines being mentioned by Doctor. I'm thankful the first Doctor did prescribe Doxy as Doctor I spoke to yesterday accessed the notes on this & couldn't deny that it probably was best to prescribe Doxy. Although I've been given 28 tablets for 2 weeks, I have read that 3 weeks should be prescribed to halt possible relapse rates, if of course, Lyme is present.
      I've had a good look around on this website & I live in an area that has a high incidence rate of Lyme. I just wonder when the NHS is going to wake up to the fact that Lyme is on the increase in UK and therefore, needs to be treated in a manner that is safe for all concerned. I suspect one of the reasons antibiotics are not being routinely given for tick bites is due to antibiotics being handed out previously in a Smartie fashion. However, in the case of a tick bite, I do think it's time for NICE to review their guidelines on this matter.

  4. Comment by Wayne Read posted on

    Great article and very informative. I wonder if anyone reading this can help me? I live in a woodland with my young family (and yes we have all had ticks) and deer regularly wander into our garden. We have parts of our garden and surrounding areas which are completely infested with ticks. Even in very short grass (and on concrete paths!) I could collect dozens of ticks by merely placing my hand on the ground.

    I'm remodelling our garden and making barriers between it and the woodland and am now turning my attention to deterring the deer who had been previously encouraged for years. In view of the tick numbers, are there any acaricides that could be used? Or anything that could prevent the deer - I'm hoping that with the deer deterred the ticks will eventually reduce in number.

    I have never been keen on the use of chemicals but with the number of ticks, I'm contemplating anything.

    Any help and advice greatly appreciated

  5. Comment by Jane Goodman posted on

    It's all very well when the
    park land is at a distance from your home: I had a spinny just at the back of my garden. A 50 ft tree carried Tick right into my house. That was 10 years ago. The tests for Tick/Lyme disease are so bad. Even though I got a positive test privately the NHS refused to except it.
    Hence no control in fact no council has any policy in controlling Tick on their land.
    A mobile transmitter was put near my home it killed off all the wild life and Tick hatch out as any school boy or girl Tick are radiation resistant.
    I was taught this by my science teachers in the 70's. They seem too have forgotten how technology works.
    No Bees no humans and they still carry right on.
    Both the council and the NHS doctors don't want to believe.

  6. Comment by Jane Goodman posted on

    The NHS tests for Lyme Disease
    are so bad. The private tests are better.
    Public Health have withdrawn their objection to private tests. As HPA no longer exsists.
    Through miss management and manipulation. The HPA took the wrong path. There is an epidemic of Lyme Disease. 45,000 per year in the U.K. The department of health is not going to issue new guidelines till 2018 as to how to treat Lyme.

    Thorough management they suppressed the reports on how infections it really was in 2010 it was up to the doctor to notify councils.
    They didn't have to tell the authorities. Even before that they still were trying to make out it was a mental health problem.

  7. Comment by Janet Wilson posted on

    I'm going to hospital tomorrow morning to have a tick bite removed from my leg, which will require a stitch and leave a nasty scar. I was bitten last august in Lanhydrock woods, Bodmin. It has itched intensely, grown bigger, granular and has never healed. Tested negative for Lyme's in January but now concerned test result could be wrong and this won't be the end of it. Still have tick and it looks like common deer tick. Walking is my passion but I'll have to be more careful and cover up.

  8. Comment by Christine Palmer posted on

    We live in heavily wooden common land. There are many deer and we are surrounded by footpaths used by dog walkers. We also have foxes. AND Lyme disease is prevelant. We treat our cats regularly, but the treatment barely works, is short lived and expensive.
    Any activity in the garden - walking on the lawn wearing sandals, sitting in the garden, gardening - all result in ticks attaching themselves. I can sometimes even feel them "bite" now and can remove them pretty quickly. After a day in the garden, we use a rough sponge and shower well, and then check carefully using a child's magnifying glass (rather than try to remove a freckle!) and the help of someone else to check the bits you can't see.
    There is almost no respite from them on the cats in the winter now - if we're lucky maybe a couple of months if it's been really cold. So even if we're not outside, the cats bring them to us.
    A pharmacist and the doctor's surgery said "go to A&E to have them removed" or book an appointment with the nurse at your doctor. Really? A&E is grossly overworked and you can hardly wait 2-4 weeks for an appointment! Tick removers only work when the horrors are huge. Fine tweezers work best, but it's difficult to get out the mouth parts even when you've had plenty of experience.
    We need effective vaccination in the UK and on the NHS in known Lyme disease areas.

  9. Comment by M. Oliver posted on

    "Most cases are cleared up with a course of antibiotics but without treatment, more serious conditions....." Is what is stated above. i.e. NOT ALL cases are cleared up. So why do Infectious Disease consultants and other clinicians refuse to accept that people might still have lyme after a few weeks antibiotics? Utter madness. But it's not they who are losing their health to a horrible debilitating disease. It is time they admitted that this is another of many infections that might not just succumb to one course of a single antibiotic. It is terrible watching someone you love suffer not only from the disease but the appalling disregard and disrespect from the medical profession. If in doubt blame the patient and stay oblivious to your own ignorance and lack of compassion. Well done NHS and PHE!

  10. Comment by Ivor williams posted on

    Thanks for the article. I live on Gower in south wales which has no deer but wandering sheep. I removed tic number 8 for this season last night. We have a woodland garden which is very nice but a bit of haven for the little beasts.
    Is there any food which helps resist them.